January 1996, Argentina.
Juan is a Toba indian from Rosario, Argentina. He lives in a shanty town along with other Tobas who have migrated to the city looking for work and a better life, only to find extreme poverty. His small house is made of found pieces of wood, plastic and metal. Around him trash, drugs, and crime are rampant, but food is scarce. For him, it is about surviving in a world where indigenous people's lives and their precious cultures simply do not matter.
For all the Toba indigenous children, their local public school, Escuela Toba 1344, is a haven. There, in a dilapidated, crumbling building, for a few hours each day, they can be children again. They show up at the entrance of the school long before it opens, anxious to enter and leave misery at the doorstep. Inside they find love and acceptance from the dedicated teachers, safety from the harsh outside world, and food to fill their empty stomachs.
I was 21 years old, and on break from art school when I went to Rosario to help out in this school and do a photo documentary. The goal was to do a photo exhibition of the images in France and Switzerland upon my return, and raise money for the Toba school.
I shot the photo of Juan when we took some of the kids on a weekend trip to the countryside. Most of them had never left their small community or been in nature. They were given beds in a big farm house. They had as much food as they wanted, and got to run around the fields, playing, and laughing.
I remember one teacher came up to me, tears in her eyes. I asked her : 'What's wrong ? What happened ?' She answered : 'The little ones were in the shower playing for such a long time. I went to check on them. They told me they had never been in a shower before. They use a bucket at home. And look the older kids are forming couples. It's like they're normal kids here.'
The teachers, like many social workers around the world, were in a role much more complex, enriching, and taxing, than what their job title suggested. They gave their heart and soul to these children and sometimes it could very hard for them to handle the mental, physical and emotional effort it required. I even remember one time parents bringing their sick daughter to the school because they had nowhere else to go for help.
One Saturday afternoon, I had gone alone to visit the city. I heard my name 'Greg' being yelled out and turned around. It was little Juan and two other Toba children. They rushed towards me and a nearby food vendor yelled at them : 'Leave the man alone!' They said back to him, with pride in their voice : 'He's our teacher.' They were so happy to see me, I was on the edge of tears. I hugged them and bought them food.
At the end of my 6 week stay, I helped walk the kids home. It was my first time visiting the shanty town where they lived. I had seen it from afar, but up close it was even more shocking. It was hard to understand how this was possible in a country with so many ressources.
As we walked through the community, the families of the children would come out and welcome me with open arms and huge smiles, thanking me profusely. The kids must have talked about me to their parents. I was a foreigner, not that much older than the teenagers and I spent quite a lot of time with them.
Tears streaming down my face (even now as I write this and recall those treasured moments), my heart bursting open, I could not believe all the love they were giving me. One teenage girl I had met once briefly gave me an entire notebook of love poems she had written to me. I felt so grateful for these beautiful people.
Now all those years later, I don't know the Toba Indians' current situation, but I suspect they are still struggling like so many other indigenous people around the world. I don't have a solution, but I witnessed how the hard work, dedication and love the teachers demonstrated helped to soften a little bit the harsh reality those children were subject to, letting them know they do matter.
From the official United Nations website :
« Indigenous cultures threatened with extinction. The importance of land and territories to indigenous cultural identity cannot be stressed enough. However, indigenous peoples have continued to experience loss of access to lands, territories and natural resources. The result has been that indigenous cultures today are threatened with extinction in many parts of the world. Due to the fact that they have been excluded from the decision-making and policy frameworks of the nation-states in which they live and have been subjected to processes of domination and discrimination, their cultures have been viewed as being inferior, primitive, irrelevant, something to be eradicated or transformed. »